Monday, September 14, 2015

What a Man!

What would it be like to have dinner with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who sang “be a simple kind of man,” and Pico della Mirandola, whose writings on humanism have left scholars and Humanities students like us wondering what it means for man to be complex? Brian Copenhaven’s study of “On the Origin and Dignity of Man” has led him into a spiral of philosophical analysis—he writes that Pico was “remarkably original—indeed, idiosyncratic. The deliberately esoteric and aggressively recondite character of his thought may help explain why Renaissance philosophy has had so small a place, until recently, in the canonical history of the discipline as accepted by Anglophone philosophers.” Indeed, it seems the foundations for some of the western world’s all-time literary favs were laid by Pico—Shakespeare himself nods to the philosopher in The Tempest and other works.

So, we get that lines like, “There is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man” have had a more lasting impact on society than messages that 70s music artists promoted. But why? What is it about considering “the many grounds for the excellence of human nature” that tantalizes us so? We could ruminate forever.

One thing I found kind of weird about Pico's writing process was that he penned, “To [man] it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills”—an inspiring thought at first glance—right after having abducted a young married woman in Arezzo. Apparently his aim in writing “On the Origin and Dignity of Man” was to introduce another writing project meant to “join all schools of thought in a single symphony of philosophies.” If Roland Barthes were to lecture on Pico’s work, he’d surely remind us that to get the most out of a text, we have to “kill” the author. But in this case, I think we get more out of Pico’s message when we consider that his own idea of societal harmony is clearly not rooted in respect for societal norms (like marriage) so much as in philosophical socialism—in other words, it seems that “On the Origin” admonishes man to find glory in man’s intellectual, not moral, potential. Maybe Pico and rock bands have something in common, after all.

Copenhaver, Brian, "Giovanni Pico della Mirandola", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


  1. Thank you for providing some background on Mirandolla. It's interesting that we can look back on the Renaissance and shake our heads at all the people excluded from this utopian ideal of humanism and wonder if someday some future generation will be doing the same to us.

  2. That is a disturbing realization, especially as the line "to be whatever he chooses" seems to refer to the choice to become like the beasts and digress on the great chain of being or to progress and become a spiritual being and come closer to God. One would think that would be a line describing our moral potential. I guess to reconcile what Pico does and what he says one would have to consider what 'moral' is. His choices could be less important to him than his ability to chose.